France Calls for Action in Syria after Reports of Devastating Chemical Attack

An alleged victim of gas attack by pro-Assad forces in Syria. The Syrian government has denied responsibility Photo: flickr.com/photos/ninian_reid

An alleged victim of gas attack by pro-Assad forces in Syria. The Syrian government has denied responsibility
Photo: flickr.com/photos/ninian_reid

With reports from Syria of a devastating chemical attack making headlines around the world, the French government has sent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the sternest warnings yet. Now, the question is if those warnings will translate into military action.

If Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’ recent statements represent the general mood of President François Hollande’s administration, Syria may join Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, and Mali on the list of France’s recent military expeditions.

“If these chemical attacks are verified, we would have to respond with force,” Fabius said in an interview with BFM TV. When asked what he meant by “force,” Fabius was tight-lipped. “I know what I mean,” he replied.

Fabius was referring to reports that early in the morning of Wednesday, August 21, forces loyal to Assad launched shells containing sarin gas—a deadly nerve agent—into the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Sources within the rebel Syrian National Coalition have claimed that 1,300 people died in the attacks. The pro-regime news agency SANA called the accusations “totally false.”

Initial reports on Wednesday morning put the death toll at 213, a statistic that has steadily climbed. The US State Department now estimates that between 1,000 and 1,800 people were killed.

Footage shows scores of bodies—many of them children—with no visible injuries lying in the streets and survivors with contracted pupils foaming at the mouth, struggling to breathe, and suffering seizures. While it is hard to determine the use of sarin from videos, experts have called the scenes suggestive of a sarin attack and pointed out that death on such a scale would be almost impossible to fake for cameras.

Sarin is among one of the world’s deadliest poisons, and was famously used in the 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway. Throughout the Syrian Civil War, each side has accused the other of using the substance, but the UN has yet to decisively confirm any reports.

If gas was indeed used, this would be the deadliest chemical attack since the Anfal Campaign of 1988, when Ba’athist Iraqi forces gassed the Kurdish city of Halabja, killing and injuring thousands.

Fabius—like most Western officials thus far—did not explicitly urge military intervention. But after this attack, France and her allies may be forced to answer that question very soon.

In a sign that France is growing impatient with diplomatic stalling, Fabius gave Assad an unmistakable warning: Let weapons inspectors in or France will assume that the regime is guilty of chemical warfare.

Fabius’ remarks came a day after the United Nations Security Council voted in favor of “a thorough, impartial and prompt” investigation of the alleged gas attack. As usual, the Security Council avoided blaming any parties for Wednesday’s violence.

China was characteristically vague, supporting weapons inspection while emphasizing that “all sides should avoid prejudging the outcome.” Beijing has urged the Syrian government to reach a peace deal with rebels, but has avoided taking firm sides in the conflict.

Russia, Assad’s strongest ally, publicly urged Syria to grant UN weapons inspectors access to Ghouta, but a change in Moscow’s pro-regime stance looks highly unlikely. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukavich hinted that anti-Assad forces staged Wednesday’s “criminal act” in an attempt to draw Western powers into the war.

Even if Assad gave weapons inspectors free reign of the country, it would be little more than a formality. Much of Syria, including the site of Wednesday’s alleged gas attack, is far too dangerous for UN investigators to realistically work in. This cruel reality was illustrated by the fact that, mere kilometers from the chaos in Ghouta, UN teams were hunkered down in the relative safety of central Damascus.

If Russia has acquitted Assad before the trial has begun, France seems to be doing the exact opposite. In June, Fabius announced that lab tests on blood and urine samples obtained in Syria left “no doubt” that Assad’s forces were using sarin gas. In a phone call on Wednesday with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President Hollande called the latest reported chemical attack “probable.”

Some experts are urging restraint. Gwyn Winfield of CBRNE World, a journal that studies the threat from weapons of mass destruction, called the apparent lack of fatalities among doctors and nurses treating the victims unusual for weapons-grade sarin but added that a diluted variant of the gas might have been used.

US and Russian diplomats will meet next week in hopes of setting up peace talks between Assad’s Ba’athist regime and the opposition Syrian National Council. But with the death toll rising as atrocities pile up on all sides, a negotiated peace is starting to look like an ambitious goal at best.

Even if the SNC and Assad reach an agreement, Syria’s collapse has opened a Pandora’s box of factions, which could thwart meaningful negotiations. The SNC has drawn support from Sunni extremists including al-Qaeda, while foreign groups like Hezbollah have entered the country to support Assad. Kurdish nationalists have also joined the fray, leading to a three-way civil war.

France might not wait for the gears of international diplomacy to get in sync. Fabius said that if the Security Council stays deadlocked—a virtual certainty, with Russia and China wielding veto power—France had “other ways” of dealing with Syria. He refused to clarify what those “other ways” might be, but the threat of military action was clear.

In June, Fabius suggested that France might launch tactical strikes to destroy the Assad regime’s gas stockpiles. While Fabius promised that no French ground troops would enter Syria, foreign air strikes alone can sway the outcome of a war, as seen in Libya in 2011, and Kosovo in 1999.

France is not alone in its apparent frustration with the UNSC. Turkey, Syria’s neighbor and once an Assad ally, has all but demanded an intervention. On August 23, Turkish President Abdullah Gül told reporters that “it is now time for concrete action,” while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called it “obvious and clear” that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davudoğlu said that “all red lines have been crossed in Syria,” directly alluding to a speech by US President Barack Obama. Obama warned Assad last year that the US would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. If Wednesday’s bloodbath was indeed a gas attack, it would seem Assad is calling Obama’s bluff. It would be humiliating for Obama if France unilaterally struck Syria, but the Pentagon is reluctant to get directly involved in yet another Middle Eastern War.

Washington has taken a markedly more moderate tone than France, merely calling on the Syrian government to give UN inspectors immediate and unrestricted access to the country.

The French press has joined the chorus calling for action on Syria. In an editorial, Le Monde declared that “indignation is not enough,” calling Wednesday’s attack “a spectacular escalation” of the civil war. Wednesday’s “massacre,” according to Le Monde, was the result of “weak international reactions” to “routine and repeated” chemical warfare, emboldening the Assad regime to take increasingly brazen, brutal actions against its own citizens.

It was Le Monde reporters who collected the Syrian blood and urine samples that, according to Fabius, represent damning evidence against Assad of chemical warfare.

Trackbacks

  1. […] France Calls for Action in Syria after Reports of Devastating Chemical Attack. […]

  2. […] With reports from Syria of a devastating chemical attack making headlines around the world, the French government has sent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the sternest warnings yet. Now, the question is if those warnings will translate into military action. If Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’ recent statements represent the general mood of President François Hollande’s administration, Syria may join Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, and Mali on the list of France’s recent military expeditions. “If these chemical attacks are verified …” […]

  3. […] Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande has — alongside Obama — proven the most outspoken world leader pressing for military action against Assad’s regime. Last week, Hollande had called for a meeting of the Security Council following a conference with the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), deeming it necessary to “punish” the Syrian leader for the chemical attacks around Damascus. […]

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